Heroes among us: Billy C. Turner

Published 12:32 pm Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who would have thought that the man who holds the record number for any U. S. pilot in flying combat missions during the entire Vietnam Conflict lives right in the town of Rutledge, Ala.?

Well, it’s very true.

Lt. Col. Billy C. Turner, USAF (Ret.) was born in Luverne in 1933 and graduated from Luverne High School in 1951, even though he was already attending Troy University during his senior year since he had accrued enough high school credits to graduate.

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Turner attained a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1958, and a Master’s degree in Systems Management at the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1964. By 1953, he had already been awarded his pilot’s wings and had obtained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.

Memorial Day this year will be extra special for Turner as it will be his 76th birthday. As he and his wife, Clara Ann Campbell Turner, live a quiet life in Rutledge, Turner recalls for the first time the events that brought him the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Republic of Vietnam Commendation Medal, 25 Air Medals and four Distinguished Flying Crosses. Lt. Col. Turner’s one-year tour in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968 also resulted in a total of 505 combat missions, a record number for any U.S. pilot during the entire Vietnam Conflict.

“There were Vietnamese pilots who flew more than I did, I’m sure,” he said. “I flew mine during that 12-month period, but Vietnamese pilots flew over several years.”

Not to be one to quickly tell of his heroic deeds, Turner finally explained the meaning behind the four Distinguished Flying Crosses he received during Vietnam.

“Those were given for a flying mission or an incident during a flying mission where the pilot goes above and beyond the call of duty—it puts the pilot in personal danger,” he explained. “One of these crosses was awarded because I was called in on a mission on a ‘fire base’, a small area where Army or Marine troops were located and were almost being overrun by the enemy…that’s when the enemy is close to taking over the fire base, and our soldiers are essentially trapped.”

“Each of these distinguished crosses was due to my actions of dropping my ordinance on the enemy and saving our troops’ lives,” he explained. “The type of flying I did in Vietnam was close air support where you take your aircraft down low to do your job—that’s what puts the pilot in peril by getting so close to the enemy.”

But what was the hardest part of his job, especially while he was in Vietnam?

“I’ve thought about the old song that says to, “hold your fire until you see the whites of their eyes, boys,” like in the old cowboy movies—well, that’s exactly what I had to do.”

Turner explained that while in Vietnam, he would fly on strafing missions, where the mini-Gatling gun that was mounted on the front of his aircraft caused him to have to dive close to the ground in order to hit his enemy because the range of the mini-Gatling gun was short.

“It would fire 6,000 rounds per minute,” he said. “Because of the small size of the rounds, we had to get close to the enemy—there was a lot of difference between dropping bombs at 5,000 feet and shooting at the people face to face—that was the hardest thing for me to do.”

After much thought, Lt. Col. Turner said, “You can drop bombs on tanks and remain fairly detached, but when you get Viet Cong trapped in a closed area, and I’d have to make pass after pass to shoot them, I’d get so close, I could see the whites of their eyes.”

“This disturbed me,” he said, quietly, “and I didn’t like to talk about it.”

After 21 years in military service, Lt. Col. Billy Carl Turner retired in May, 1973.

May God bless all of our military heroes on Memorial Day and every day.